Her brother’s keeper

Photos courtesy of Carina Durkin Taylor

WISE TAYLOR WAS BORN the day after Christmas 2018. A week later, his mother Carina Durkin Taylor ’12 took him in for a checkup. “I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I would have brought my husband with me had I known they were giving those results because we knew there was a possibility.”

Like 100,000 other Americans, Wise had sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disease. Although Carina, 31, and her husband Lloyd, 36, are carriers of the sickle cell trait, their 5-year-old daughter, Londyn, was born with normal red blood cells.

In most people, red blood cells are round and flow easily through blood vessels to carry oxygen throughout the body. Sickle cell disease causes red blood cells to change shape, becoming stiff and sticky. They adhere to each other, getting stuck in blood vessels and blocking oxygen flow. People with sickle cell disease have shorter life spans and can experience excruciating pain when their blood cells get stuck in their vessels.

While there are treatments for sickle cell disease, there is only one cure: a stem cell transplant. For such a transplant to work, blood proteins must be a close match between a donor and a recipient. “We found out that if Londyn was an exact match for our baby boy, there was a super high chance that he could be cured,” Carina said. “We got her tested right away. I said, ‘I can’t wait.’ If it wasn’t a match, I had to come up with other options.”

Carina and Lloyd prayed. They knew there was only a 20% chance that Londyn would be a perfect match.

“We had to wait two weeks for the results,” Carina said. “We found out she was a match. It was the greatest joy. God can do anything.”

The couple chose Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, two hours away, for the procedure. First, Wise would receive chemotherapy to destroy the bone marrow in his body to make room for Londyn’s healthy cells. Then, three weeks later — Day Zero — Wise would receive Londyn’s stem cells. Following the procedure, Wise would need to stay in the hospital for six to eight weeks for inpatient care. Later, doctors would perform a bone marrow test to determine if the procedure worked.

Two steps back

And then COVID-19 happened.

“Talk about God’s timing,” said Carina. “Last year, I was at home with the kids. Lloyd was working a job that wasn’t meeting our needs. When the transplant was postponed, I was working the night shift in human resources at an Amazon fulfillment center.” (Carina has a master’s degree in human resource management from Indiana Wesleyan University.)

She applied for a virtual position with Amazon’s human resources department and got the job. “You can just see how God made it work for this moment,” she said.

At the same time, Lloyd was looking for a better job with the Indianapolis Fire Department. “Thousands applied, and they accepted 59 people.” Lloyd just made the age cutoff, applying at age 35. “You cannot be hired into IFD if you are over the age of 35 at the time of application,” she said. “Lloyd was 35 when he applied and turned 36 during training.”

Their income has more than quadrupled. “Last year, we had some churches that were paying our rent. We could barely keep up,” she said. “Now, we are in a position where we have a second apartment in Cincinnati for when Wise is released so we can stay near the hospital while we’re still paying for our home in Indianapolis. It can bring you to tears seeing how God made it work when it needed to work.”

They’re in a better place as a couple as well. When money is tight, marriages can fray. “It was us struggling financially and our son being born with sickle cell,” Carina said. When people with sickle cell run a fever, they’re often rushed to the emergency room to watch for sepsis. There are 75,000 hospitalizations every year due to sickle cell disease.

“It was just hard, because it would be 3 a.m., and he’d have a fever. I would have to take him to the ER and then you have to go to work in the morning,” Carina said. “It’s 3 in the morning. Who’s going to watch Londyn? And we had no sleep, and our poor baby had to go get blood drawn at 3 a.m.”

Drained, Carina and Lloyd reached out to Lloyd’s uncle who was also the pastor who married them. “He helped guide us through those difficult times, reminding us of the reason we got married and the promise we made to God that we could get through this. We’re [now] in a better space than we have ever been in,” Carina said.

A new perspective

Because of COVID-19, the procedure was rescheduled for August 2021. While they waited, Carina embraced every challenge with the spirit of a warrior.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this.’ And we say, ‘We’re not sorry.’ We are just so grateful we can,” Carina said. “The Bible talks about life. Life can be wearisome, troublesome, stressful, and scary. We look at our son, and we think, Yes, he was born with sickle cell disease, but he can be cured. We trust, and we have full faith that he will be cured.”

As they wait, Carina focuses on the distinct personalities and characteristics of her children. Wise is cuddly and adorable. “He’s a momma’s boy,” Carina said. “He’s a homebody. If we are out a little bit too late, like, past 8 p.m, he wants to go home.”

His sister is a firecracker. “She’s energetic like Lloyd. She’s funny like me. And she’s empathetic. You can see her little personality, and you can tell she’s going to be a star. Whatever she ends up being, we’ll encourage her. We say, ‘Maybe you’ll be a bone marrow doctor.’ We aim high with her. She’s so smart.”

And she’s all girl. Londyn likes to go to the grocery store dressed as Snow White.

Most of all, Carina is thankful her children are best friends. She thinks back to that scary time when they took Londyn in for testing.

“We were driving. Lloyd was sitting in the front seat. I was thinking, Lord, let her be a match. Let her be a match. I turned around and looked in the back seat, and Wise is asleep in his car seat, and Londyn’s asleep, and they’re holding hands. He’s just this little bitty thing, and so is she, really.”

That’s when the tears come.

“It was literally in that moment that I knew, regardless of the results, everything will be OK,” she said. “They have each other’s back. She is her brother’s keeper.”

Editor’s note: On Aug. 27, Wise received a stem cell transplant from his sister, Londyn, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Weeks later, doctors determined that Wise’s new blood cells were completely free of sickle cell disease. Wise was released from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on Sept. 17, 2021.

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